If I were to drop you into just about any moment in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, it would feel like a relatively good, but overall by-the-numbers first-person shooter. Looking at the series’ pedigree - particularly the reprehensibly bad Call of Juarez: The Cartel - it’s hard to expect much from a series in which the only consistency is its middling-to-poor reception.
The shooting in Gunslinger is... fine. The progression system, uninspired though it might be, is a welcome addition - proof that just about any genre or game can be improved with meaningful player progression. The Bulletstorm-light-style combos and experience systems are fun and encourage players to be tactical in their execution. The showdown/duel mechanics, which involve balancing speed, focus, and reflex, is likely the most fun I’ve had with that kind of system, including the duel mechanic from Red Dead Redemption. The game doesn’t look terrible, but it doesn’t look great either. At moments it looks sort of like a Playstation 2 game being re-released on PC. At other times it looks serviceably modern.
But it's 2014, and who cares? If you go into Call of Juarez: Gunslinger expecting a Call of Duty-type experience, with massive set pieces and visual razzle dazzle, you’re going in for the wrong reason. For that matter, if you’re playing Gunslinger for the mechanics at all, then the developer has realized something you haven’t.
See, mediocre games used to be welcome. People bought them, enjoyed them enough and forgot about them. And the companies that made those games did fine. Turok, Serious Sam, Blast Corps - mid-tier games came and went. I loved these games for the month or so they held my attention. But modern gamers, it seems, can’t be bothered with a middling game. Even a AAA game that is perceived as “average at best” is doomed, as was the case with 2010’s and 2012’s Medal of Honor games.
The developers of the Call of Juarez series, clearly aware that their games fell squarely in the center of the middle of mediocre, decided to make a modern video game. Gunslinger doesn’t have incredible graphics, groundbreaking systems, or the tightest controls in its genre. But it takes a genre that generally passes on meaningful story and fucking swings for the fences.
Gunslinger opens with the main character telling a story in a bar, and this is the conceit for the entirety of the action. I was immediately caught off-guard by my reticence to skip cutscenes, so I watched every god damn one. The story we hear is that of a gunslinger named Silas Greaves, whose paths have apparently crossed every outlaw in the history of the old west. We’re immediately set up with the expectation that this is not a particularly reliable narrator, and then thrust into one of many stories he’ll tell us.
During gameplay, Silas narrates the players actions. Now, this isn’t Bastion’s narrator, but it is responsive, and that was immediately a hell of a lot more than I expected from a Call of Juarez game. The first time I accidentally stepped off a cliff, Silas mentioned how if he hadn’t been careful around those rocks, he would have broke his neck. Scripted or not, when I walked back behind a barn, Silas took note of it.
For the first half of the game or so, most of the narration is strictly separated from the gameplay. But then, the narrative trick kicks in - the player gets into an unbeatable situation, and Silas says “Then an exit appeared, as if it were magic.” And, I shit you not, a rock in the environment flew into the air with smoke trailing behind it as if it had jetpacks strapped to it. This kept happening - rock walls would split apart, pieces of lumber would fly through the air to create pathways. And then, my favorite use of the narrative kick.
As Silas continues his stories, we get to a standoff at a bank. We, as the player, play through it as another character, Ben, tells us what happened. When we finally kill the outlaws, Ben is interrupted by another character, who tells us “No, no, no, that’s not what happened.” And then the camera rewinds through the level and we play it again, taking another route. And then again.
Now listen. The story in Gunslinger isn’t outstanding. The ending is fairly predictable halfway through the story, and there are some questionable representations of Native Americans, to say the least. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t positively tickled when I found myself in a room full of dynamite, the camera slowed down, and Silas said “luckily, I wasn’t stupid enough to do that.” Sure, the ending is surprisingly preachy for a game that mostly doesn’t take itself too seriously. But doesn’t it say something about the direction in which video games are moving that a series that wallowed in its B-ness’ main problem is now that it might take the story side of things a little too seriously.
The point is, games are maturing. And I can’t think of something more emblematic of that maturation than a game like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger doing something genuinely interesting with its narrative. When previously a game like this could have simply been a mediocre shooter with little to no story, we now demand more of our entertainment. We demand some sort of intellectual challenge, in some way. And I think we should be proud of our medium.